I don’t know what I was expecting from Lauren Yee‘s Cambodian Rock Band, currently on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, but it wasn’t what I got. The synopsis available beforehand made the whole thing sound kind of… heavy? Emotionally manipulative? I don’t know– somewhere in the space This is Us lives, but with references to Cambodian genocide. I went because I love SCR, and I am so glad I did. Now I can join the chorus of voices encouraging others to GO SEE THIS SHOW.
Before seeing it I thought the play, directed by Chay Yew, was acted by members of the Long Beach-based band Dengue Fever, but that’s not the case. They wrote the songs, and they inspired playwright Yee, but the show is beautifully, brilliantly acted by Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim, Raymond Lee, Jane Lui, Joe Ngo and Daisuke Tsuji.
Cambodian Rock Band is a perfect example of how theatre can be a gift. This play is a gift from Lauren Yee to the rest of us. It takes a particularly grim period in Cambodia’s history, the mid-70s atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, and presents it in a context made vibrant by the extremely human nuances of any moment in history.
The heart of the story is a daughter’s awakening to her father’s identity– both through her own investigation into the horrors that changed his life and through his willingness to let her know his whole self. This is a universal theme: the shock of a parent’s identity beyond parenthood and the moment at which they reveal this alternate self to their children. It’s a rite of passage.
The soul of the play is the music. It’s amazing. Vivid and joyful and evocative, not usually in English, youthful and innocent and haunting. The music breaks up the heavy moments, introduces you to the characters’ most precious selves and punctuates the harder parts in ways that stay with you. Is there a soundtrack available? There should be.
The action of the play is Neary (Ishibashi) striving to bring Comrade Duch (Tsuji) to justice as a way to better know her father (Ngo), unwittingly acting out an age-old cycle between parents and their children. Her father raised her sheltered in the U.S., determined not to let her life be colored by the atrocities he survived. His efforts to hide what happened to him create a divide between them, an inevitable inability to understand each other because part of their relationship is built on lies and omissions. She becomes fixated on finding out what he’s hiding and pursues the truth until she finds it, thereby forcing a familial confrontation with the things he’d hoped to protect her from.
This play is infotainment at its finest: an accessible father/daughter story and lively music, which act as the sugar allowing the audience to swallow the medicine of learning about a revolution and genocide linked to the Vietnam War. The truth of what happened is too hard to look directly at on its own, but presented in this manner, Yee gives the audience the gift of making it easier to look at and Cambodian survivors the gift of being remembered and seen.
If you can get to Orange County by March 25, please make the effort to see Cambodian Rock Band. Tickets are available now at SCR.org.
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